Julian Assange: Lawyers describe the US prosecution as retaliation against the state

  • By Dominic Casciani, Home and Legal Correspondent Sam Hancock
  • BBC News

Image source, Elizabeth Cook

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The WikiLeaks founder was not present in court on Tuesday, and his lawyers said he was not feeling well

Julian Assange's lawyers have accused the United States of “state retaliation” over its attempt to prosecute the WikiLeaks founder.

Assange has been in Belmarsh – a UK prison – since 2019, and is wanted by the US authorities for revealing secret military files in 2010 and 2011.

At a two-day High Court hearing, which began on Tuesday, his legal team said his extradition would be contrary to UK law.

If the appeal is rejected, Assange could be extradited within weeks.

Edward Fitzgerald KC, one of the 52-year-old Australian's lawyers, said the US prosecution attempt was “politically motivated”.

Fitzgerald told Justices Dame Victoria Sharp and Justice Johnson: “Mr Assange was exposing serious crimes” when he revealed the documents in question.

He told them that his client “is being tried for engaging in… [the] It is normal journalistic practice to obtain and publish confidential information – information that is true and of clear and significant public interest.”

Another of Assange's lawyers, Mark Summers KC, said the US was seeking retaliation for Assange's political views, one of several obstacles to his extradition from the UK. Put By the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS).

“This is a typical example of state retaliation for the expression of political opinion,” Summers told the court in central London.

The lawyers also argued that their client was in “real danger of further extrajudicial action… by the CIA.” [Central Intelligence Agency] or other agencies” — which is a legally sensitive way of saying that he could be assassinated or subjected to some harm beyond a criminal penalty after a fair trial.

Their claims – which have not yet been clearly tested – are that the CIA planned to kill Mr Assange during the seven years he took refuge inside the Ecuadorian embassy in London, from 2012 to 2019.

Summers told the judges that then US President Donald Trump had asked for “detailed options” about how to kill Assange, who was not in court on Tuesday due to illness.

“Sketches have been drawn,” he said, adding that there was evidence of this “truly amazing plan” – although none had been presented yet.

Summers said the alleged plan “only collapsed when the UK authorities were not very interested in the idea of ​​rendition or shooting in the streets of London.”

“The evidence showed that the United States was willing to go to any lengths, including abusing its own criminal justice system, to maintain impunity for US officials for torture/war crimes committed in its territory,” he and Fitzgerald added in written submissions. The notorious “War on Terror”, repressing actors and courts willing and willing to try to bring those crimes to account.

“Mr. Assange was one of those targets,” he added.

Assange's massive legal battle began in 2010, when WikiLeaks revealed a large number of secret military files from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – including footage showing a US helicopter shooting at civilians in Baghdad.

He took refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, before being arrested by the Metropolitan Police in 2019.

The United States demanded his extradition from the United Kingdom that year, saying revealing the information would put people's lives in danger.

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Dozens of Assange's supporters demonstrated outside the Supreme Court on Tuesday

Two years later, a British judge ruled that although the United States had shown it had a legitimate criminal case against Assange, he could not be transferred because he might try to harm himself.

The US later overturned that ruling after the UK gave new guarantees about how Assange would be treated if extradited, including the possibility of serving any potential prison sentence in his native Australia.

At this week's hearing, largely seen as a last-ditch effort, Assange's lawyers are asking for permission to challenge the extradition order signed by then-UK Home Secretary Priti Patel in 2022.

If they fail to convince judges there is anything wrong with the order, Assange must be extradited within 28 days, unless he can convince the European Court of Human Rights to temporarily halt the trip under a so-called “Rule 39” order.

Nick Vamos, former head of the Crown Prosecution Service's extradition division, said US marshals could arrive in London within days if the High Court quashes the case.

“There is a very high threshold for [the European Court of Human Rights to intervene]”, meaning that there is an 'imminent risk of irreparable harm' to his human rights, which is, of course, one of the arguments that the High Court in London would have just rejected.”

The case “will determine whether he lives or dies.”

Speaking to the BBC on Monday, Stella Assange said that her husband would not survive in an American prison, and described the case as politically motivated.

She added: “This case will determine whether he lives or dies.”

Assange's supporters gathered outside the Supreme Court on Tuesday, waving banners bearing the words “Free Julian Assange.”

Ms Assange thanked them for their support, telling them, from a podium outside the court: “We have two big days ahead of us. We don't know what to expect, but you are here because the world is watching.”

Speaking to the BBC, she described her husband as a “victim” of American “retaliation”, echoing the words of Assange's lawyers at home.

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